Understanding Used Electronics

A growing challenge

Used electronics are one of the fastest growing segments of the waste stream. Electronics contain materials that are potentially hazardous to the environment and human health if not handled responsibly.  

Mercury, Cadmium, Phosphors, Lead and other metals common in electronics, as well as plastics and flame retardants, can contaminate the air, water and soil if sent to a landfill, or otherwise irresponsibly disposed of.  Many of these materials are also known to cause birth defects, neurological impairments, respiratory illness, cancer, or other serious ailments in humans or animals exposed to these substances.

The explosive growth in technology consumption has created a monumental challenge: the proper management of used electronics in both the developed and the developing world. 

Quick facts on electronics

  • In 2012, approximately 15 pounds of used electronics were generated per capita, worldwide - but less than 20% were recycled.
  • The volume of used electronics is expected to increase over 33% by the end of the decade, with much of that growth coming from emerging economies.
  • Used electronics vary widely in size, shape, weight, age and technological complexity - including everything from last year's high end mobile phone, to a PC workstation. Many of these products can be repaired and reused.  All others can be recycled for their scrap materials.
  • Increasing numbers of electronic devices contain sensitive user data, including contact information, credit cards, medical histories, photos, and other data. Unauthorized access to used or discarded devices is one of the leading causes of data security breaches

A sensible solution

Repair / Reuse

Reuse is widely recognized as the most environmentally beneficial form of recycling.  Repairing and reusing electronics extends the useful life of products and keeps them out of the waste stream.  It also recovers more value per unit than any other form of materials management.  Not only that, reusing electronics devices reduces the need to manufacture new units, and makes affordable electronics more accessible to a wider range of consumers.


Recovery of valuable metals and other materials from end-of-life electronics provides a sustainable solution when legitimate reuse is no longer feasible. “Urban mining” for rare and precious materials contained in electronic devices also stretches our planet’s limited supply of natural resources and requires less energy than the mining of new metals.

Recycling safely

Currently, less than 20% of discarded electronics are being safely recycled.  The other 80% is lost opportunity.  Every used cell phone, laptop, computer or other electronic device that is collecting dust in a closet or basement, or disposed of in a landfill, has the potential to make a significant contribution towards a better planet if properly recycled.    

Unfortunately, not all “recycling” is responsible recycling.  Illegal dumping, open air burning, and other unsafe practices have caused devastating harm to workers, communities, the environment, and data security.

R2 Certification is improving electronics recycling practices around the world by ensuring accountability and adherence to the highest industry standards for data security and the protection of workers and the environment.  R2 Certified recyclers have put into practice the rigorous requirements of the R2 Standard and undergo regular inspections to prove it. 

R2 Certified recyclers and refurbishers are now operating in 18 countries around the world.  As technology sharing, training and global partnerships increase, so does participation in certification programs like the R2 Standard.   This trend is good news for people and the planet!